The GAO was established as the General Accounting Office by the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. The act required the head of the GAO to "investigate, at the seat of government or elsewhere, all matters relating to the receipt, disbursement, and application of public funds, and shall make to the President ... and to Congress ... reports [and] recommendations looking to greater economy or efficiency in public expenditures". According to the GAO's current mission statement, the agency exists to support the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people.
The name was changed in 2004 to Government Accountability Office by the GAO Human Capital Reform Act to better reflect the mission of the office. While most other countries have government entities similar to the GAO, their focus is primarily on conducting financial audits. The GAO's auditors conduct not only financial audits, but also engage in a wide assortment of performance audits.
Over the years, the GAO has been referred to as "The Congressional Watchdog" and "The Taxpayers' Best Friend" for its frequent audits and investigative reports that have uncovered waste and inefficiency in government. News media often draw attention to the GAO's work by publishing stories on the findings, conclusions and recommendations of the its reports. Members of Congress also frequently cite the GAO's work in statements to the press, congressional hearings, and floor debates on proposed legislation. In 2007 the Partnership for Public Service ranked the GAO second on its list of the best places to work in the federal government and Washingtonian magazine included the GAO on its 2007 list of great places to work in Washington, a list that encompasses the public, private, and non-profit sectors.
The GAO is headed by the comptroller general of the U.S., a professional and non-partisan position in the U.S. government. The comptroller general is appointed by the president, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, for a 15-year, non-renewable term. The president selects a nominee from a list of at least three individuals recommended by an eight-member bipartisan, bicameral commission of congressional leaders. During such term, the comptroller general has standing to pursue litigation to compel access to federal agency information. The comptroller general may not be removed by the president, but only by Congress through impeachment or joint resolution for specific reasons. Since 1921, there have been only seven comptrollers general, and no formal attempt has ever been made to remove a comptroller general.
Labor-management relations became fractious during the 9-year tenure of the 7th comptroller general, David M. Walker. On September 19, 2007, GAO analysts voted by a margin of two to one (897–445), in a 75% turnout, to establish the first union in the GAO's 86-year history. The analysts voted to affiliate with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), a member union of the AFL-CIO. There are more than 1,800 analysts in the GAO analysts bargaining unit; the local voted to name itself IFPTE Local 1921, in honor of the date of the GAO's establishment. On February 14, 2008, the GAO analysts' union approved its first-ever negotiated pay contract with management; of just over 1,200 votes, 98 percent were in favor of the contract.
The GAO also establishes standards for audits of government organizations, programs, activities, and functions, and of government assistance received by contractors, nonprofit organizations, and other nongovernmental organizations. These standards, often referred to as Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (GAGAS), are to be followed by auditors and audit organizations when required by law, regulation, agreement, contract, or policy. These standards pertain to auditors' professional qualifications, the quality of audit effort, and the characteristics of professional and meaningful audit reports.
In 1992 the GAO hosted XIV INCOSAI, the fourteenth triennial convention of the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI).
In 2012, the GAO won the Ig Nobel Prize for literature for issuing an interim report titled "Defense Management: Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies", a follow-up on a previous reports about the cost of reports and studies. Due to its nature of a specific meta-study, the Ig Nobel Prize motivation described it as a "report about the report about reports about reports".
GAO is a United States government electronic data provider, as all of its reports are available on its website, except for certain reports whose distribution is limited to official use in order to protect national and homeland security. The variety of topics reported on range from Federal Budget and Fiscal Issues to Financial Management, Education, Retirement Issues, Defense, Homeland Security, Administration of Justice, Health Care, Information Management and Technology, Natural Resources, Environment, International Affairs, Trade, Financial Markets, Housing, Government Management and Human Capital. GAO often produces highlights of its reports that serve as a statement for the record for various subcommittees of the United States Congress.
Most GAO studies and reports are initiated by requests from members of Congress, including requests mandated in statute, and so reflect concerns of current political import, for example to study the impact of a government-wide hiring freeze. Many reports are issued periodically and take a long view of U.S. agencies' operations. GAO also produces annual reports on key issues such as Duplication and Cost savings and High-Risk Update.
The GAO prepares some 900 reports annually. GAO publishes reports and information relating to, inter alia:
Each year the GAO issues an audit report on the financial statements of the United States Government. The 2010 Financial Report of the United States Government was released on December 21, 2010. The accompanying press release states that the GAO 'cannot render an opinion on the 2010 consolidated financial statements of the federal government, because of widespread material internal control weaknesses, significant uncertainties, and other limitations'.
As part of its initiative to advocate sustainability, the GAO publishes a Federal Fiscal Outlook Report, as well as data relating to the deficit. The US deficit is presented on a cash rather than accruals basis, although the GAO notes that the accrual deficit 'provides more information on the longer-term implications of the government's annual operations'. In FY 2010, the US federal government had a net operating cost of $2,080 billion, although since this includes accounting provisions (estimates of future liabilities), the cash deficit is $1,294 billion.
The most recent GAO plan, for 2010-2015, sets out four goals, namely to address: (1) Current and Emerging Challenges to the Well-being and Financial Security of the American People; (2) Changing Security Threats and the Challenges of Global Interdependence; (3) Transformation of the Federal Government to Address National Challenges; (4) Maximization of the Value of the GAO.
Forensic Audits and Investigative Service (FAIS)
The Forensic Audits and Investigative Service (FAIS) team provides Congress with high-quality forensic audits and investigations of fraud, waste, and abuse; other special investigations; and security and vulnerability assessments. Its work cuts across a diverse array of government programs administered by IRS, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Homeland Security, among others.
After the closing of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995, Congress directed GAO to conduct a technology assessment (TA) pilot program. Between 2002 and 2006, four reports were completed– use of biometrics for border security, cyber security for critical infrastructure protection, technologies for protecting structures in wildland fires, and cargo container security technologies. In the first report, GAO found that while biometrics technologies could be used to secure the border, they had limitations in fingerprinting and facial recognition systems. An immediate impact of the report was a congressional testimony on the use of biometrics which, in turn, helped to inform U.S. national security reform efforts. GAO reports, which are made available to the public, have become essential vehicles for understanding science and technology (S&T) implications of policies considered by the Congress.
Since 2007, Congress has established a permanent TA function within GAO. This new operational role augments GAO’s performance audits related to S&T issues, including effectiveness and efficiency of U.S. federal programs. In 2010, GAO joined European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA) as an associate member. In the last three years, GAO has completed TA reports on three topics, the most recent one being released in 2011 – rail security, climate engineering, and alternate neutron detectors. In the climate engineering report, Congress requested GAO to examine three areas: the current S&T state of climate engineering, views of experts on the future of climate engineering research, and potential public responses to climate engineering. When the GAO receives a request to conduct TA, it follows five phases: Acceptance, Planning, Data Gathering and Analysis, Product development and Distribution and Results. Phases one and two include selecting the topic and initiating the TA plan while the other ones are respectively: conducting TA, followed by developing the report and ensuring its accuracy and integrity, and finally receiving feedback from Congress and developing lessons learned to enhance the TA process.
The GAO describes the TA as providing "thorough and balanced analysis of critical technological innovations that affect our society, the environment, and the economy" explaining "the consequences that each featured technology will have on federal agencies and departments, and their wider impacts on American society". This broad working definition enables GAO analysts to utilize TA as a tool for policy analysis. Technology assessments at GAO are conducted in accordance with GAO’s quality assurance framework. GAO initiates technology assessments through congressional mandates, requests from congressional leaders, and through the authority of U.S. Comptroller General.
The Technology Assessment section of GAO's website offers latest TA reports and videos.